Royal Johannesburg & Kensington Golf Club. Picture: Supplied
Royal Johannesburg & Kensington Golf Club. Picture: Supplied

I have been concerned for some years about golf hanging on to traditional views and structures arbitrarily, especially how we view visitors and the inherent, if unintentional, elitism within membership categories.

I expect that during 2021 golf clubs are going to experience a decrease in rounds numbers (many are now reporting record levels of activity) and growth, in terms of both new members and rounds. Sustaining these levels will need to be predicated on something other than the postlockdown rush to get back on course and out in the fresh air again.

To be tackled sustainably this challenge will need to see changes at both a structural and marketing level.

In this feature I have asked Robert Jasper, CEO of the Sandton Sun hotel, to take off his hotelier’s cap and look at these challenges from the perspective of a golfer.

John Cockayne: I have consistently advocated changing the way we view visitors as somehow being “inferior” to members, rather than seeing them as customers, as the hospitality industry would. I even try to jog some of my clients out of this historical rut by using terms such as “a member for a day” to reinforce the idea that visitors are not only vital to the bottom line in the immediate sense, but potentially members of the future.

Robert Jasper: This attitude seems to come from the past when the term “club” had connotations of restricted access, private and exclusive, ironically none of which are supported by the liquor licensing act. These terms may well still apply to a select group of clubs, but for many they run counter to the way the club would like to run in revenue terms, which would be a lot more along the lines of a pay and play facility with extended revenue streams.

JC: My sense is that the term “club” is a hurdle to many potential visitors. It was interesting to hear Andrew Clark, the CEO at Bosch Hoek in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, during a recent visit, explaining that he has removed this reference from Bosch Hoek’s marketing materials. Bosch Hoek’s goal to be a destination, offering more than golf, means that dropping the word club makes good marketing sense, especially when developing a venue with appeal that reaches beyond its golf component, however excellent this might be as is the case with Bosch Hoek.

RJ: The obvious parallel with “membership” within the hotel sector would be frequent guests for whom we run loyalty programmes and incentives. However, we try to adopt an egalitarian approach with everyone who walks through our doors. Golf has generally struggled in this respect with pros not being allowed into the main clubhouse until well into the 20th century and continuing issues over access for “people of colour” and women.

JC: Many membership categories seem to entrench the sense of elitism, when instead of restricting players, clubs need to be offering access at every level without many of the constraints that are still in place. A young female friend commented: “How can you hope to attract new blood when you want to tell people how to dress”?

RJ: Dress codes have loosened up so much that even smart casual, the least “threatening” option just a few years ago, is often too difficult a requirement today. Your friend’s comment proves that many younger people don’t value traditional mores, because they are not their own. Like it or not, we are in continual transition at many levels, from dress codes to language, in which traditional requirements and viewpoints run counter to contemporary ones.

JC: Everyone understands the need to pay, however, within this there needs to be flexibility. We have always had five-day, six-day and seven-day memberships, which allow for the days you can play each week. Prepaid cards always made me nervous, because you are potentially giving away rounds at a discounted rate, without ensuring you get the ancillary revenues from support sales that must be generated to make the tee-time sale of real value in revenues’ terms. 

Royal Norwich, in the UK, seems to be a club after my own heart — certainly in playing terms. It has instituted a modified credit system where in one membership category (all members have equal rights — irrespective of membership type) you buy points and then use these whenever you play. The points’ cost of a round is higher on some days than others, but the choice has been left to the customer as to when and how often they want to play and when the credit has expired, you can simply top up your account.

RJ: I recall clubs in the US offering prepaid credit which was consumed over the year and some having an automatic debit system, which credited a member’s’ country club account for F&B [food and beverage] purchases on a use it or lose it basis. Whatever the mechanism, choice must be the key, within reasonable parameters, that is we do not want to see golfers in string vests or swimming trunks out on the links.

This flexibility should be applied, whether it is about dress codes, the days you play or your preferred membership category.


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