How to make clubhouses run more efficiently, without blowing the budget

How to make clubhouses run more efficiently, without blowing the budget
By Adam Lawrence

For many, even most golf clubs, the very concept of clubhouse design is outside their comfort zone. In thousands of ordinary golf clubs around the world, especially older ones, the clubhouse ‘just is’ – it’s something that has been there, essentially unchanging but for the occasional lick of paint, since the club was founded.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this is at the venerable New Zealand golf club in Surrey, England, where the sense of club continuity is emphasised by the locker room; when a member dies, or leaves the club, his name, which is painted on the front of his locker, is simply crossed out, and another’s name painted on. There must, I suspect, be a certain kudos in being allocated Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former locker!

Nonetheless, there are few courses or clubs that would not benefit from an expert appraisal of their clubhouse facilities. Buildings, after all, wear and weather just like golf courses, and as a course needs maintenance and updating from time to time, so does a clubhouse, and thus, even within the context of everyday care, there are probably things that can be done to make a building more functional and welcoming.

“The key is identifying and focusing on the most profitable aspects of your club operations, or, in other words, keeping it simple,” says American clubhouse designer Tom Hoch. “In an attempt to be all things to all people many clubs end up sending a brand promise they cannot fulfil. Many clubhouses in need of help usually have more space thanthey need.”

Sometimes, though, it’s the other wayround. When new owners, led by Robert Clive of 360 Golf and his business partner Jeremy Davies, acquired the Point at Polzeath in Cornwall, England, they realised that more space was what the clubhouse needed. Formerly known at Roserrow Golf Club, the Point is at the heart of a development of holiday homes, not to mention being only a couple of miles outside Rock, one of Cornwall’s busiest and most upmarket seaside resorts. As such, the clubhouse’s existing bar and restaurant, though large and appealing, needed enhancing if the club was to meet its goals of being one of the area’s most successful hospitality venues.

But a key part of the new owners’ business plan was to take great care before spending capital. Fortunately, on the ground floor of the building was a good-sized room that had previously been used as office space, but which opened out onto the terrace in front of the clubhouse. Now the Point’s sports bar has become a significant part of the club’s facilities. Guests typically spill out onto the terrace in the pleasant Cornish summer weather, thus increasing the effective space.

Upstairs at the Point, the club’s main restaurant and bar is rocking throughout the week during the busy summer period. Special promotions such as a weekly ‘Fizz and Chips’ night, at which a fixed price buys the diner fish and chips plus a glass of champagne, are attracting customers who otherwise would have no connection with the club itself: the restaurant was averaging more than 100 covers a night for dinner during the holiday period. The owners have invested heavily in health club facilities, realising that these will attract a different audience from golfers, and help make the club a more attractive venue for couples and families.

What works for one venue is always worth considering for others, but it’s obvious that a club in the heart of a busy tourist destination is a different animal from a typical suburban golf and country club. Many clubs have found that trying to increase food and beverage sales is fraught with difficulties: the restaurant trade is notorious for its fickleness and for the high proportion of hospitality businesses that fail. The kind of F&B offering that is typical for an upmarket US country club, with grill room, sports bar, perhaps a bar in the locker room, and catering at poolside, would be unheard of in most UK and European clubs. On the other hand, at busy resort or pay and play destinations, the higher level of footfall may give more openings to upsell F&B.

“Management and programming and design changes must go hand in hand to be truly successful,” says Tom Hoch. “There is not a one size fits all solution for clubs. We continue to help club’s survive and thrive through our revenue based design and now revenue based financing model. The first presents clients with creative design solutions specific to its brand promise. The second presents the creative financing alternatives needed to finance the club improvements. That being said, many clubs and the club industry in general is simply flat footed when it comes to innovative offerings in merchandising and food and beverage. When helping clubs reposition themselves I always look to the best retailers, merchandisers, and creative culinary dining establishments for programming and design inspiration.”

The key, as with virtually every aspect of golf club management, is to assess the individual circumstances of the operation. If a club is in the countryside, and all its customers have to drive a fair distance to get there, there is little point trying to push bar revenues; clients who only ever have one drink, perhaps a snack, and then head home, are not exactly profitable. Many clubs have targeted non-golfing events, such as weddings, as low hanging fruit; certainly clubs are well set up to cater for such events, given their usually substantial and visually appealing facilities. But the wedding business, and for that matter the corporate events industry, is fiercely competitive, and a close analysis of local rivals is vital before committing time, effort and money to marketing in this area.

Finally, it’s vital to take a hard-hearted look at the clubhouse’s accounts. Especially in traditional members’ clubs, the accounts are often unclear, and it’s difficult to know exactly how particular elements of the business are performing. If members are willing to subsidise underperforming clubhouses, because they value highly enough the services provided, fine. But thinking that the clubhouse is a profit centre, while in fact it is eating up revenue, is a recipe for disaster.  

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