Date: April 30, 2017
Author: Paul Vardy

Erich Weber Interview, GM of Moore Park Golf

Erich Weber – GM of Moore Park Golf is interviewed by Paul Vardy- Club Support Manager.

Moore Park Golf is a golf course & driving range located less than 10 mins from the Sydney CBD and is home to the Sydney Golf Academy.   Moore Park Golf House is a heritage listed clubhouse offering daily breakfasts & lunches as well as all ranges of functions and corporate days with seating for 150.

Erich joined the Clublinks team in 2009 as General Manager of Moore Park Golf.   He arrived with 19 years’ experience as a certified Australian PGA Member.  In addition, Erich has 8 years of hospitality consultancy and operations roles at some of the world’s finest establishments.

As General Manager, Erich oversees the management and operation of the facility and is chiefly responsible for the implementation of strategic business and marketing plans.

Erich, your facility seems to have the best of everything with clubhouse, driving range and course all within close distance from the CBD. 

Moore Park Golf is a fabulous facility.  It is owned by Centennial Parklands and is such an important asset for the community and the sustainability of the parklands. Over the past 5 years Centennial Parklands has invested in excess of $5m, which has really taken Moore Park Golf to a whole new level.

What have been the biggest areas of capital expenditure at Moore Park Golf?

Moore Park Golf has been transformed from what most may have experienced in the past. The on course experience has greatly improved by the introduction of new paths, bunkers and cosmetic enhancements. Our driving range recently received an $880k refurbishment and it just has a great vibe about it now, with the big screen, music, new mats and balls etc. We also upgraded the bar, function spaces and locker rooms, which now offers inviting spaces where people want to stay and relax, attractive for our corporate clients….the place is just moving forward at a rapid pace and it now has a great vibe and energy about the place!

As it’s under Centennial Parklands, am I right in saying that you aren’t reporting to a board?

Yes correct, on the ground at Moore Park Golf, we work with Centennial Parklands executive, whilst also managing the delicate balance between members, of which we have 600, and the public.

Clublinks was founded in 2002 aimed to service the golf and communities sector to deliver business solutions via an outsourced services model. Our scale to provide our clients with industry experts and shared experience is the main point of difference to a normal golf club model.

As we are one of Australia’s most popular destinations for golf entertainment, our responsibility is to do what we can to inspire people in our community to pick up a club, have some fun and hopefully make a connection with our game. The industry has some amazingly talented people and those in my network of public access facilities often share ideas and we bounce situations/challenges off each other. We all seem to have similar challenges and it’s great to be able to share and learn.

What role do the 600 members have in decisions at the club?  Do they have their own committees?

The resident golf club runs the normal committees, (match, membership, course, house) like all other golf clubs and this feeds into the greater membership strategy discussed between stakeholders, via a monthly liaison meeting. From the operator side, we do workshops on various topics that are relevant to our business objectives and align with overall strategic pillars of our client.

What have you noticed in terms of the amount of golf traffic in recent years?
Despite some challenging weather patterns over recent years, MPG has continued to grow round numbers and we have seen above budget trends over the past 18 months, which is really positive for our game. Our course superintendent Mal Durkin and his team do a fantastic job delivering a consistent high quality product and various other capital projects (mostly cosmetic) have really elevated the standard. I have no doubt we could aggressively grow rounds here at MPG, however the oncourse experience and pace of play remains our focus and this, in our view, is paramount to ensuring we maintain a sustainable model into the future.

Pace of play has always been a major challenge for golf courses.  How have you dealt with it?

When we arrived to Moore Park Golf in 2009, slow play was a big problem with 30-40% of rounds exceeding five hours. To combat this we made some adjustments to the course, cut out rough areas, widened some hitting areas and honed in on the bottleneck hot spots. We also worked closely with the Club and course marshal to implement a pace of play strategy. The main turning point came when we introduced Solution 240 – a GPS based system which tracks player position in real time over the web. The immediate placebo effect cut into round times. Today more than 90% of rounds are under four and a half hours, which is a huge improvement.  But four hours should be the benchmark to aim for.

You mentioned the course superintendent and the consistently high quality product.  As it’s arguably the the most debated part of the experience for golfers, what’s the structure of decision making and what input do all stakeholders have?

I am pleased to say we have a very cohesive unit between stakeholders, all wanting to see the golf course and user experience improve on a daily basis. Regular consultation and great communication from Mal Durkin has been critical in managing expectations along the way.  

What are golfers asking for and how do you capture this information?

I believe price needs to match the experience and be supported by great customer service. I know when I go out to dinner I personally am looking for nice food, interested staff and some level of experience and this is what I imaging people want from us.

Staff and management training (either in-house or external) can be challenging in busy work environments but it’s really important to allocate time and resources.  How are you able to achieve this and what sorts of things do you do?

We invest in staff training, social activities and incentives to drive a positive culture amongst the team. It’s a key focus of Clublinks to ensure our people are engaged and really enjoy their employment and this has really flowed through to a more positive experience for our customers.  To measure our performance, we test our service levels via mystery shopper and customer survey programs. This helps quantify where we are at, where we have come from and when we want to be.

Our particular business operates day and night so we aim to designate sessions during downtime and/or run two sessions for morning/afternoon staff.

We have achieved great success with asking staff to give us scenarios they encounter during their shifts and we follow this up by hosting some ‘role play’ sessions, based on these topics. Talking through these challenges as a group and working through the outcomes has really given the guys on the front line more confidence and autonomy to make decisions.

When talking with other public course facility operators, what is the greatest challenge that is being faced by your part of the golf industry?

In my view, I really believe there could be more cohesiveness between national and state bodies which in turn would hopefully stimulate more investment into marketing the game and a heightened focus on grass roots golf. I am an avid follower of social media and stay in touch with key stakeholders and more often than not the marketing seems to be directed into already established golfers.   I really think the industry on all levels (public through private clubs) would benefit from more activity and participation, supported by some innovative  national marketing campaigns to promote the game at the grass roots level.

If budget wasn’t a hurdle, I’d love to see a celebrity shoot with the Harbour bridge backdrop hitting at a floating green (or the Brisbane river, Crown Casino etc)…with Jennifer Hawkins, Mark Wallberg…even Adam Sandler…..we really need to think outside the box and seek out ambassadors which will connect on a new level and also encourage the media to get behind our game and get the word out that golf is the game for life!

We’re fortunate to have so many public figures already playing the game and providing free exposure.  Ricky Ponting was the face of Play Golf Week and we could explore more ways to tap into the potential of marketing with high profile people.

Most definitely, I am sure you may have noticed US golf marketing has taken a big shift towards different types of ambassadors and it’s a great way to keep our game front of mind.

Is there a typical pathway for golfers at your facility?  

What we are seeing is beginners coming through our range and golf academy and some taking the plunge to become members or advance further as a more serious social player. At our facilities, we are always striving to introduce new pathways and once our mini golf project is ready to take to market, this will hopefully create another strong entry point.

Via our membership, we experience almost three times the national average of membership churn and often these people don’t stop playing, rather upgrade their membership to private clubs such as the Lakes, NSW or similar.

That’s a great service you’re offering.

If you want to call it that! The heavy lifting happens predominantly at public golf courses across the country and some energy injected into this level will definitely yield some exciting outcomes for the industry.

How big a role does the Driving Range play in attracting people to play the course and join membership of your facility? 

The driving range is the centrepiece of the business and we really believe this experience is one that competes with other social activities like going to the movies, a game of sport or similar. We must continue to evolve to ensure the range experience is entertaining and a worthy competitor for all other forms of entertainment.

What other means do you deploy to attract people to your facility and the game of golf?

We recently introduced a 22m2 big screen on the outer field of the range which streams live sport, live lesson and internal content. We are really starting to see new markets coming in, such as groups of friends, woman and kids.  It’s really positive.

We are also very excited to soon kick off constructing a new mini golf facility, which will also be supported by a new entertainment hospitality space and public accessible short game area. We predict the mini golf will inspire a whole new demographic and our job will be to convert this market into regular players.

That sounds very exciting.  The big screen idea sounds like the concept of a gym whereby you can watch a screen while you do a workout?

Watching the cricket world cup whilst having a practice…its pretty cool!

I know that Yarra Bend in Melbourne recently built a brand new mini golf facility.  Do you liaise with other venues nationally and find out what their experiences are?

Yes, we have travelled the country to meet with various operators who have built these or in the planning phase. There is plenty of IP to capture with the great mini golf sites and many varying themes and ideas to consider.

What are the barriers to entry and do you feel you have an advantage in fewer barriers to entry?

The main barrier relevant to us is the toughness of our game. Someone just starting may find golf too difficult and this point may need more consideration across the industry. Experiences like the driving range, mini golf, big hole golf and SNAG are programs we have introduced to combat this.

And they’re fun.

A great example that Clublinks has introduced for Monash Council at Oakleigh Golf Course is a combination of big holes on greens coupled with “it’s OK rules” which is a modified rules format to remove the barrier of difficulty.  It’s ok to throw the ball, it’s OK to kick it, it’s ok to miss a hole, it’s ok to tee it up!

Public facilities do have an advantage with fewer barriers to entry, but this is completely necessary to stimulate interest in the game, which then hopefully flows through.

How have people, particularly kids, responded to these initiatives?

At our facility (not the example from Oakleigh above), we were lucky to have contracted a great junior Australian PGA instructor – Ollie Gebert, who oversees the Sydney Golf Academy Juniors Program. With Ollie’s energy and understanding of junior golf, we have seen 40% growth in junior participation this year, further to the 120% last year.

Wow. That’s something to be proud of.

 We are extremely proud of the positive impact the Sydney Golf Academy has made since its introduction a few years ago. We have experienced phenomenal growth in all areas  and seeing key areas like woman’s golf grow by 130% last year is via our super star woman’s coach Nicole McConnell is just awesome!

So what about when enthusiastic golfers go on to become members of private clubs.  If they leave, do you see that as a problem?

Despite the growth, we are seeing a trend in members upscaling to private clubs and it’s completely logical for people if money is not the problem and they have fallen in love the game and want to take it to the next level.

I think we need to embrace the fact that our role is to inspire people to take the first step into membership and if they take it further then we have done our job. It is only a problem when someone stops playing, then maybe we need to look at ourselves in this case and ask why?

I guess this goes to the heart of the matter, wide recognition that facilities like yours are the gateway into golf for most people and that your success has a tremendous flow-on effect to private clubs and the general health of the sport.  The role of national bodies such as Golf Australia and the PGA, in supporting all levels of golf with a heightened focus on public access facilities, is a way forward.

Both Golf Australia, Golf NSW and PGA are really working hard to connect more with public access facilities and we hope this focus will create a heightened interest in the game. I think it’s exciting times for our game and with this collaboration, I am confident the trajectory of our sport will reach new heights in coming years and beyond.

We strongly believe the industry as a whole are beneficiaries from facilities like ours (with a focus on the grass roots level) and our aggressive approach to targeting the entertainment seeker or non-golfer will have definite flow through benefits to industry.

I understand you recently attended to the National Golf Course Owners Conference in the USA?  The Golf Course Owners is a massive industry in itself.  What did you find most interesting?

I was lucky enough to experience the week with an amazing group of people, like minded in similar public access facilities and all inspired to support our great game. For me personally, it was great to have the US experience in such good company. As for the trip, we were all blown away by our visit to Top Golf San Antonio. These guys have developed such a great model for golf and it’s really encouraging to know they attract 85% non-golfers and 40% female. TopGolf seem to have mastered the art of entertaining people, through golf.

Yes, I’ve seen the videos.  It really expands your thinking about how the golf product can be packaged and made to appeal in different ways to different people.  What innovation do you see could be on the horizon and what innovations have you noticed in recent years that has made a difference to the way your business operates.

As mentioned earlier, places like TopGolf seem to be leading the way for driving ranges and this type of ‘gaming’ format for range practice will start to develop and become more accessible. At the moment TopGolf seem to have a monopoly over this space.

Additional to the big screen I already mentioned, most of our innovations are being delivered by Clublinks on the backend – such as our App which has drone flyover movies for each hole, GPS, live leader board scoring. We also now use a great CRM system for database capture and marketing, which has been an absolute game changer!

I really like the concept of taking golf to the people, rather than expecting new people to come to golf.  There are moves afoot in various places to get golf demo set-ups in public malls, at retail outlets and community gatherings to expose the non-golfing public to golf and heighten awareness of a golfing venue right nearby.  Is that something that you’ve experienced or seen in your travels? 

Yes, in the past we have mobilised things like SNAG and set them up during school holidays for kids.

Where do you see public access courses as different from private member clubs?

The main difference I see is in the way we market and interpret the game. After now spending a bunch of years in the public golf sector, I can now see that most private clubs focus on;  member competitions, pennants, championships (elite level) and not enough on how to connect on the grass roots level. Is it the responsibility of all clubs to have grass roots programs for the betterment of the game (an opportunity) or is the responsibilityheavily placed on public facilities?  If the later, then logically we would need more investment at the Public golf level to influence the outcomes the industry is seeking.

Naturally, Golf Australia, state/territory bodies and the PGA encourage all clubs to take up the range of golf development programs on offer.  Everyone can contribute to growing the game.

In terms of attracting and retaining people to your facilities, to what extent is course condition a make or break element or are other elements very much in play?

Most operators would agree the golf course is the core product, but it’s not the make or break. Customer service, creating a positive  energy and great experience are our key ingredients to achieving repeat play and retention.  People need to feel welcome.

What is the demographic of your golfers and does this differ from the demographics of private clubs?

I unfortunately don’t have comparable data from private clubs but what I can tell you is Moore Park Golf attracts the younger market, dominated by the age group between 30-39.

That’s good news for the future of the sport. Can you see that these people may one day be club members but have to see the value proposition given their limited spare time?

Yes, but manufacturing more flexibility options and services…things ‘more than just golf’ will hopefully keep them engaged.

How do you lead change?  How do you communicate change with all your stakeholders?

I am very grateful of the commercial environment we operate in and most things we change are borne from great ideas that add value to the customer experience and provide acceptable commercial returns.

Stakeholders in this venture at Moore Park Golf are all highly motivated to make Moore Park Golf a special place for the community, to grow the game and provide attractive entertainment opportunities.  It just seems change is the norm in our environment.

That’s great.  What about when it affects the status quo that some people have an interest in protecting?

I appreciate some people/places don’t like change, but business must evolve, morph and diversify if they want to continue to be relevant. The challenge is trying to bring these people on the journey and give them some ownership to path the way for the future.

Some private clubs have somewhat morphed into public/private facilities in recent years in order to survive.  Do you see this happening more in the industry?

If all things remain equal, there will be increased pressure on clubs across the country, particularly those is catchment areas with lots of competitors. Logically, as costs increase and revenue struggles for growth, there will be a need for boards to take drastic steps. I believe demand for companies like Clublinks (managers of golf facilities) will increase, as clubs look for more expertise (best practice technology and systems) whilst achieving more efficiencies delivered by outsourcing certain services.  

Golf Australia and public courses are in more regular communication as we all realise this great sport has advantages when working together to grow the pie.   Where do you see public courses and the national and state bodies as well as the PGA working better together?

My common theme here is marketing of the game. I would love to see a national based campaign (delivered by industry stakeholders and state bodies) to launch a summer golf campaign by state and supported by framework of smaller events for clubs to leverage from. A tighter campaign timeline, say Oct – Feb, would achieve desired cut through and clubs ride this momentum through the cooler months.

Do you see public and private clubs collaborating more in the future?

I think there is already a collaboration, it’s just a foundation to build on now and into the future. The truth is, we all need each other and all facilities need to think about the industry and ask themselves how they can contribute across all levels to rebuild a great industry.

How important do you see the social side of your business – such as the hospitality areas and the events that bring people together.

It’s the absolute glue that brings it all together, the last customer touch point and certainly very important to the experience. Centennial Parklands are currently investing in a new outdoor hospitality entertainment area, which will support all activities across the complex – mini golf, range, members etc…the provision of great food and friendly service is critical to our business model.

Erich – thanks for your time.  It’s been great to hear some insights into public golf facilities.