Profile: Paul Keeling from England Golf
As Club Services manager for England Golf, Paul Keeling brings together a lifelong passion for golf, business acumen from a career initially in health and fitness management and experience of golf club management at Longcliffe and Minchinhampton golf clubs, the latter having three courses and 2,000 members.
It is a mix of skills which has proved highly useful as he is called upon to support clubs that are finding themselves in financial dire straits during these difficult times.
“Over the years I have become increasingly passionate about being able to offer the professionals running clubs, and the committees that work with them, qualified information and advice,” he said. “The role of Club Services manager was presented as a blank canvas when I started in 2006, and it is something that I have enjoyed developing. That said, if you had suggested back then that I would be carrying out business appraisals for struggling clubs I would have thought you were mad!”
The department has expanded, with James Crampton bringing his knowledge of handicapping and rules and new colleague Chris Hicks with degrees in golf management and sports’ law on legal aspects.
Club Services, under Paul’s stewardship, can offer clubs a comprehensive support service.
“We began to get calls from clubs who were losing members a couple of years ago, just as the recession bit,” he commented. “Having been invited to visit a couple of clubs, we felt that a fresh pair of eyes was the answer and set up a business appraisal service. Sometimes the committee can be just too close to the problem to see how to save money or be more efficient.”
With up to 12 clubs receiving his help at any one time, Paul admitted that there is a growing percentage of clubs in a precarious financial situation. “It’s difficult to get accurate statistics since most figures are based on profits. But clubs that are prepared to move with the changing landscape of the industry are now starting to turn the situation around.”
He added that clubs are now starting to realise that they must run as a business, not as a hobby, and that staff depend on the club for their livelihoods.
Paul studies information submitted by clubs which have asked for help in order to assess the situation and he analyses the management and committee structure.
“In the majority of cases clubs are most concerned about membership retention and recruitment, which is mainly down to marketing. The problem is that this is alien to many, as in the past they had waiting lists for membership. We suggest that clubs develop long-term business, financial and marketing planning techniques, and we can assist with any current pressures such as business rates and how to renegotiate these, or talks with their landlord or bank.”
The range of membership products on offer can often be an issue. “Clubs complain about the average age of their members, but haven’t considered how to attract younger golfers,” Paul explained. “A seven- or five-day membership may not suit someone with work or family commitments, so clubs need to think outside the traditional golf product ‘box’. I always suggest a visit to their local leisure club as they will certainly provide a lifestyle membership package to suit the customer and so should we.”
He added that clubs often forget the value of their biggest asset – the course itself. “Tee time bookings need looking at – if the tee is empty, that’s lost revenue potential. Use that tee time for recruitment by booking it to visitors or societies. Let them ‘test drive’ the course and if your marketing is up to scratch, it could generate additional memberships.”
Paul suggested that online booking software can be particularly helpful and that golfers should stop being afraid of it. “Members worry that they won’t be able to get out on course when they want to, but technology is so much more advanced now that it is not a problem. The manager can simply block times off for members to ensure that they get priority. Golfers are becoming much more receptive to technology in other areas, so this should be a small step.”
Paul and his department aim to work closely with clubs to give them a better understanding of modern facility management, encouraging committees to help the professionals that run their club – the pro, manager and greenkeeper – develop the business.
“It can be a tall order to educate committees, especially as the members change every three years, but we aim to communicate with them better. An example is the handicap and amateur status seminars being run by James Crampton where we invite three or four delegates from the club, including the manager and the men’s and ladies’ handicap secretary so that more personnel are aware of the changes, and the manager is not a lone voice at committee,” he said.
Working closely with other departments, including development, is also part of Paul’s remit. As part of the English Golf Partnerships / County Golf Partnerships initiative to introduce juniors and adults to the sport, England Golf has instigated RangeMark, an accreditation scheme for driving ranges. Each range is linked to a local club, and when new players are ready to go out on the course, they are introduced to the club and its trial membership and academy provision.
Paul suggested that clubs must be prepared to make changes, whether to become greener, or update their membership marketing, in order to succeed. England Golf is never short of ideas to help. The latest initiative is nationally-recognised membership and handicap cards, which add 14 standard benefits to the clubs’ own membership benefits. This includes RAC membership, discounts on car hire, preferential rates on golf travel and so on, and Paul said: “It’s a combination of golf and lifestyle benefits which should help members feel that they get that bit more out of their club membership.”
And industry professionals will breathe a sigh of relief at the development of a standard online training calendar, offered by the nine main training providers, which brings together all courses, seminars and workshops offered by the various golf organisations. “The plan is to show all dates, results and CPD points allocation in one place, and we’re even looking at online payment. Once it is up and running, anyone with a skills gap or who simply wants to learn more can consult the calendar and find suitable training via a single resource.”