Date: November 28, 2017
Author: Golf Australia

Membership talk with Club Marketing Solutions

Paul Vardy – Clubs & Facilities Support Manager talks with Rob Vanderzalm of Club Marketing Solutions

Q.  Rob, do you think membership just as important to clubs today as it was 10 or 20 years ago?

Golf membership is still the backbone of any member club. Not only does it provide the financial foundation for a golf club but also creates the culture which separates private clubs from the pay for play courses.

Yes, club membership has been under pressure in recent years. But there is still a market for membership despite discussion that people are “time poor”. It’s up to clubs to take a detailed look over their membership proposition, understand who their members are and formulate a sales and marketing strategy to proposer in the future.

Q.  Most of membership subscriptions revenue goes straight to the bottom line whereas most of hospitality revenue is eroded by costs in; wages, food, drink, and hidden costs such as energy costs and wear and tear.    Why do you think clubs go chasing the hospitality revenue when they could focus more on membership?

Golf clubs often consider a quality experience through hospitality as very important. It’s a part of the membership “experience”.

But clubs still focus too much on internal operations like hospitality and golf operations, yet in most cases invest very little (or nothing at all) into membership sales, marketing and analysis which accounts for the largest part of a club’s income.

Historically, many clubs have not had the need to invest in this space. Demand for membership was strong. As demand has slowed in recent years, clubs often see the role of membership inquiry and sales being that of the reception or administration staff.

So it becomes a secondary responsibility in the club not one that has been allocated a dedicated resource.

There are often no processes for membership sales, retention or follow up. Yet many clubs still wonder why their membership is falling year on year.

Try and think of another commercial business where the sale of the most important income generation is handed by the reception or untrainedadmin staff? The answer? None.

Q.  Do you agree with the notion that clubs should treat Food and Beverage as a service that’s real purpose is to support the more critical revenue stream that is membership?

Absolutely. Many clubs often struggle with the internal or external catering model. For some the external model works perfectly fine. The contractor is successful. The members are offered a good product and service. And the club mitigates the risk involved in taking it internally. However many clubs run a successful internal catering operation too. Members support the food and beverage department and it’s an important part of the experience.

But getting the catering right won’t save the club if membership is falling.

Devote the time to catering, but in a tough golf membership market, devote just as much (if not more time) to membership sales and retention.

Q.  You’re a big advocate for first impressions for visitors and those making enquiries to a club about membership or simply playing a round.  What sorts of things must clubs ensure they get right for that first impression and where do they go wrong?

First impressions are everything. And in my research on membership inquiries across many golf clubs, the first impression I got making a phone inquiry was terrible.

In most cases I was referred to the website. There were very few questions asked of me. Virtually no attempt to get my details or offer me a tour of the facility.

Again, the importance many golf clubs put on membership sales is low. And not surprisingly there are so many missed opportunities to connect with a prospective member and understand his or her needs.

The alternative “social” membership options offering a handicap and reduced greens fees, are increasing. The marketplace is flooded with them.

Golfers are taking these social memberships instead of being attached to as club where the benefits are often much better on balance. A social membership might cost as little as $100 for 12 months. But if you include green fees, the “real” price is comparable to membership of one club.

Not to mention the many other benefits club membership provides.

If clubs marketed their membership like the social membership market did, there would be a lot more interest.

Q. What sort of training in this area do you provide?

My business is consultancy based. So clubs looking to improve their membership sales, marketing and retention, would get in touch for an obligation free assessment.

From there, I provide a detailed submission for the board’s consideration.

Q.  Do you see more clubs setting aside marketing budgets these days?

Sadly no. Marketing for most golf clubs is often a print advertisement in a national golf magazine. The medium to promote golf membership isn’t nationally. It’s local. Who in Melbourne joins a golf club in far north Queensland?

A marketing budget for membership sales, marketing and retention should be around 3 per cent off gross income.

A marketing strategy is part of the plan. Club should also set KPIs in terms of membership sales so overall membership income is in line with operating costs.

Clubs that decided to invest in sales and marketing always see improved results.

Q.  Where are clubs smartest to spend a marketing budget, how do they stay on top of social media and what role do members play in the club’s profile in social media?

The best marketing spend is across a number of platforms. If it’s membership, social media and Electronic Direct Main (EDM) promotions to the membership are valuable. National publications are not relevant for golf memberships.

Social media is critical for any business. And golf clubs are no different. The role of updating social media in a not for profit club typically falls on one or more people. It may be the manager and other members of staff.

It’s a good idea to have multiple input. However, the content must be worthy. A lot of golf clubs do social media exceptionally well. And not surprisingly they have a large following and a wonderful tool to engage current and potential members.

Social media is the best way to promote the club’s culture. A club with a lot going on is a place that will attract new members.

Always encourage members to submit content too. Members are a great source of content, you just need to ask them.

Q.  These days we hear of the term “Marketing for one”.  It suggests that mass marketing is limited in its impact but personal connection in marketing is perhaps more important than ever.  Do you see it this way?

In a club environment, engagement is critical for membership growth. Clubs with a healthy culture will generally perform better with membership growth. One because golfers want to be a part of it. And secondly, current members want to see the club’s membership grow so they are more likely to lure their friends and colleagues.

That said, it’s about a mix of marketing these days. Clubs often want to market a range of things. So selecting the right platform is critical.

Q.  Clubs often focus on finding new members but put less resources into retaining new members.  Research suggests that new members have a much higher likelihood of leaving in the first few years. What can clubs be doing to improve membership retention?

Retention is one of the biggest challenges facing member clubs. Yes, the highest proportion of those leaving are those who join in the past two years.

Chances are they joined the club on a special promotion (or no joining fee). Or they simply didn’t enjoy the culture and failed to connect with other members.

Clubs must nurture new members through engagement. That doesn’t mean a phone call each week, but a series of trigger points in the first six months of their membership so the club can better attain their position.

The feedback from new members is vital. It may raise concerns the club’s board never knew existed. On a positive, it maybe highlight areas the club can address and do better.

It’s much easier to keep a new member than to find a new one. And each member is your best source of attracting another golfer.

Clubs should always conduct an exit survey too. That member maybe have 100 per cent decided to leave. But the board must know the reasons.

Q.  We often see the focus on clubs to improve the facilities of a club, particularly golf course, as a means of attracting new members.  Sometime the assumptions turn out to be wrong.  How important is club culture and social connectedness in clubs these days?

Clubs are always looking to improve the quality of their offering and in recent years put downward pressure on some of their biggest expenses.

Having a great product is one thing. But over capitalising on golf course design or a fancy clubhouse isn’t the road to prosperity.

There are many golf courses out there with a great membership – and they don’t have a designer golf course or a clubhouse that just appeared in “Grand Designs”.

Equally there are plenty of so called “championship” courses with modern facilities with a small membership who are failing to break even year on year.

What sets one golf club apart from the other? It’s called culture. How a new member feels after their first six months.

If you join a club and after a few months you have found the club to be soulless and not friendly, chances are you will not continue with the membership.

The quality of the golf course and fancy new dining room will not keep the member.

I’d rather rank a golf course’s success by the number of cars in the car park and players on the course than by a top 100 ranking in a publication.

Q.  Many clubs have reduced prices in order to promote new memberships but often this has been short-sighted as competitors have been quick to match them.  Alternatively, clubs have done some clever things to create flexible membership offerings and often with new software on the market.  How can clubs make good decisions and avoid the traps with membership offerings?

Lowering membership fees and offering “deals” is not the answer. As consumers, we can sense desperation. And nothing reads more desperate than “no joining fee” or “join today and get 15 months for the price of 12”

The long term road to success is to value add the proposition to meet the consumer demands. Otherwise, you’re on a race to the bottom in the face of rising costs

Get the offering right. Set up a 12 month marketing plan and implement the right sales processes with KPIs so you know what you’re shooting for.

Q.  Rob, you’ve been in golf for a number of years and now you’re aim is to work with clubs to improve their marketing.  Where can clubs contact you?

Having worked in the golf industry for more than 20 years, I am passionate about working with clubs to help grow their membership on the right path. My website, email mobile 0478 161 993.