Flexible membership schemes have been a success
Several golf clubs introduced flexible membership schemes this year – and they have brought in large numbers of new members as a result.
The manager of Lincoln Golf Club, Craig Innes, warned last year that some golf clubs will die unless they start offering flexible membership packages to their customers.
Craig stated that members of clubs will continue to convert to ‘nomadic’ pay-as-you-play golfers if they are only offered limited subscription packages such as either full or five-day memberships – even if they can pay in instalments. The key, he stated, is to offer golfers packages tailored to their requirements.
Flexible packages, also known as golf credits, associated memberships and pay as you play memberships, typically involve golfers paying a discounted annual subscription to be a member of the club, and then reduced or free green fees for a certain number of rounds they play.
This seems to be popular with golfers who do not play enough golf to make a typical annual subscription to a golf club cost effective – one of the most cited reasons why memberships at clubs have dropped so dramatically in the last decade.
“People are queuing up to leave golf clubs, not join them,” he said.
He cited China Fleet Golf & Country Club in Cornwall which, more than a decade ago, surveyed former members to find that many had left the club because they were playing too few rounds of golf to justify the annual subscription of, then, £600.
The club, therefore, in 2002 introduced a flexible membership scheme in which members paid £200 per year plus £8 green fees in the summer and £5 in winter.
The scheme attracted 200 new members in its first 18 months. Today it consists of 300 members who have an average age in the mid-40s. The average age of members of the club’s traditional scheme, which also has 300 members, is nearly 15 years older.
“I really do feel most private members’ clubs within the next 10 years will be operating on a flexible membership scheme,” stated Craig. “I do not wish to see any organisation fail, however all the trends are there and failure is a guaranteed way that will kick-start the thinking process to change, and the product to evolve, for those clubs that are left.”
As Craig predicted, the following year, this summer, saw several clubs introduce flexible membership schemes.
Haywards Heath Golf Club in West Sussex is one such example. The venue is a traditional private members’ club but that didn’t stop it bringing in a flexible scheme this summer – ‘to provide local golfers with a fair and cost efficient way of playing golf and belonging to the club’.
“Flexible is an innovative form of membership that is designed to suit the modern way of life where pressures from work or family leaves little time to play golf,” said Graham White, club secretary.
“It is an ideal membership for the occasional golfer or those who want to try the game, or the club, before committing to a full cost subscription.”
Flexible members at Haywards Heath benefit from the same range of facilities and experiences full members expect.
“It is a membership for those who, despite time pressures, want to be fully involved with their golf club as well as those who just want a home base where they can play occasionally. Flexible members can enjoy friendly games during the week, competition golf at weekends or a relaxing nine holes at the end of the day followed by a drink in comfortable surroundings,” said Graham.
A flexible member at the club receives a swipe card containing golf credits. The card is topped up with 365 credits when they make their first annual payment of £390. Each time they play, a number of credits are deducted according to the time of day and day of the week. Members running low on credits can top up a maximum of twice at £100 each time for a total of 200 extra credits and keep on playing.
The 365 credits gives 12 rounds of golf when playing at peak times during the weekend. Playing on midweek afternoons results in the opportunity to play nearly 18 rounds.
Haywards Heath’s bar tills manage and control the use of the credits. Every time a round is played the membership card must be swiped in the pro shop or bar. The bar software then keeps a real-time record of the credits used, plus provides a report for the club showing who is on the course.
The card can also be loaded separately with cash to pay for discounted food and drink in the clubhouse.
“We are still retaining the traditional unlimited golf membership options,” added Graham. “They prove an attractive and cost-effective category for the very regular golfer. However, a flexible member can easily transfer to a full membership without losing any credits and enjoy unlimited playing rights.”
The club went live with the scheme on June 1 this year, with a target of recruiting 50 members by the year end. By early September, the club had recruited 39 new members to the category (33 men and six women).
“We did have 40 but one of our lady recruits has already transferred up to full membership,” said Graham.
“And we do anticipate more doing so in the future. Plus, the new membership category is already achieving one of our stated aims – the recruitment of younger golfers aged 30 to 50 who are working and / or with families. These time-poor, frustrated golfers cannot justify full subscriptions for the few times they can afford to play. Therefore, flexible has attracted back some of our past members who gave up when they reached 30 and the discounted young persons’ subs stopped.
“We have also attracted new members in this same 30 to 50 age bracket whose golf has consisted of occasional outings with groups and societies. Now they are benefitting from being part of a members’ club with official handicaps and competitions.”
Graham revealed that more than half (21 out of 39) of the new category’s members are aged 30 to 50.
“I believe that once you attract a member who is at least over 40 and settled in their career, many will stay with the club through to retirement and beyond.
“The flexible category has gained recruits from our social members, previously active golfers, who paid a green fee on the odd occasions they played. Now they are back in the fold of playing members.
“One of the key reasons we have introduced flexible is to stop the club haemorrhaging members. Our survey, conducted before we introduced the category, indicated that some ten percent of our full and five-day members would transfer down to flexible. However, half of these said that without flexible they would leave the club completely. I estimate that we lose some seven percent of our playing membership at renewal time. Our survey figures indicate that we will probably halve this rate of attrition as we move into 2014. We shall see the outcome at the time of subscription renewals but these figures are repeated at other clubs where flexible membership has been introduced.”
Flexible membership is not the only innovation Haywards Heath has introduced to attract more members and more business to the club. Other new memberships introduced include ‘Family’ where the children of playing members aged between 10 and 12 can become members for no subscription, they just pay the affiliation fees. The club’s pros have also reduced their fees so that the club can now offer ‘Academy’ membership with a full range of lessons for £275, and the club has reduced its country boundary to 15 miles for half price subscriptions.
“We have also introduced a ‘Luncheon Club’ which is proving popular with the neighbouring community and also with the local business community,” said Graham. “Non-golfers are adding to our bar and catering turnover by using the clubhouse at lunchtimes and during the afternoons when traditionally it has been quiet.
“I am still receiving enquiries on an almost daily basis and believe we shall exceed our year-end target.”
This summer, the Altonwood Group, which operates five golf clubs in England, went down the flexible membership route as well.
The company launched ‘The Altonwood Season Ticket’, which provides golfers in the core catchment of London what it describes as an ‘Oyster card-type membership’ whereby members are able to enjoy all the benefits of club membership but without the commitment to a 12-month annual subscription.
The ticket provides access to all five golf clubs in the Altonwood Group – The Addington, the Surrey National, Westerham, Woldingham and Godstone – for £299.
“This provides golfers with a CONGU-affiliated handicap certificate, up to 50 percent off standard green fee costs, a free golf lesson, early booking rights, as well as being able to play in a number of club competitions,” said Simon Hodsdon, the company’s managing director of golf.
“In addition, new season ticket holders will gain financial benefits by receiving additional discounts on range balls, buggy hire and food and beverages.”
As with Haywards Heath, once the credit has been used up, golfers will be able to top up the card and maintain their access to the golf courses.
“Whilst the number of those participating in golf is holding up, research shows that nearly two thirds of golfers in the UK do not belong to a golf club,” added Simon. “The number of golfers in Great Britain is still about four million, where it has been since 2000, however, among regular golfers, about 566,000 play once a week or more, a number that has been gradually declining over the last few years. Meanwhile driving range usage has steadily increased since 2002, and there are now more than three million golfers that visit a range each year. Fewer than 28 percent of all golfers are members of a club. The Altonwood Group are clear that in order to fight the decline in club membership, it is the responsibility of the clubs and industry as a whole to look at new ways of attracting new members to the club game.
“The season ticket had been part of our plans for quite a while but we felt this summer the time was right to invite those hard working, time poor occasional and corporate golfers back into the fold. We can’t ignore the austere times we are currently living in and we like providing golfers with the opportunity to enjoy the Altonwood experience without asking them to commit to a 12-month, seven-day membership, or without alienating our core full members.”
The chairman of The Altonwood Group, former football chairman Ron Noades, said the scheme has also been a success: “With the rise of the nomadic golfer over the last few years, it is paramount that we react to market conditions, listen to consumers and find alternative routes to maintaining and growing the membership levels at our clubs. With the invention of our season ticket, we are now able to offer this new breed of golfer an option that suits both his lifestyle and budget. So far to date [early September], the new style flexible membership has been a great success with revenues already covering the cost of its implementation and we are still only 12 weeks into our launch period!”
Meanwhile, Panshanger Golf Complex in Hertfordshire believes its new credit system ‘appeals to casual golfers who may not want the commitment of a membership but also want to get value for money’.
The scheme, which started this March, enables users to pre-pay for one of five credit options, ranging from 30 for £85 to 250 for £475.
Credits are tiered with, for example, peak time usage of the course at weekends worth 10 credits, or weekday usage after 6pm worth two credits.
To compare, a typical standard green fee at the club at the weekend is £30.50, while seven-day membership is £748.
“We have received good feedback from the players who have taken up the option and we have regained some members on this scheme who had left the main membership,” said a spokeswoman.
As of mid-September, credits had been bought to the value of £12,300.
Richard Martin, manager at Panshanger Golf Complex, said: “We wanted to provide a way that golfers with all budgets were able to play as much as they wanted. We feel that the golf credits system is a brilliant option for those who want to play often and get value for money, but may not want to commit to a membership.”
The Oxfordshire, which charges £2,600 for an annual subscription plus a £1,000 joining fee, has also introduced ‘Flexi-Membership’. “This year The Oxfordshire launched one of the most innovative and accessible golf membership products in the region. Flexi-Membership is designed to allow you to join The Oxfordshire on a flexible package giving you the choice of when you wish to play, seven days a week,” said a club spokesman.
“All members are able to play in any competitions, participate in club social events, and matches – home and away.”
The club also offers five options, from £495 for 50 credits to £1,795 for 310 credits. Green fees are then worth four to seven credits, depending on the time of day, day of the week and month that they are redeemed.
And even one of the world’s most famous golf clubs joined a flexible membership programme this year.
The Belfry, which has hosted the Ryder Cup four times, joined the De Vere Club, in which members can play at any of 12 golf venues for £295 per year.
For that price, members receive 100 points which can be redeemed against green fees, buggy hire, driving range tokens and spa and leisure visits at clubs including The Carrick at Loch Lomond, Carden Park and Slaley Hall. One hundred points entitles members to, for example, four summer weekday rounds at The Belfry or 20 winter weekday rounds at Oulton Hall. The package also allows members to hold a handicap and play in club competitions.
Since the De Vere Club was launched three years ago by Peter Allis, it has attracted more than 13,000 members.
“The incorporation of The Belfry, one of the world’s most iconic golf resorts, is a significant addition to the De Vere Club, the country’s fastest-growing golf membership,” said spokesman Jamie Carroll.
“Motivated by a desire to stimulate golf participation and frequency of play among keen golfers who cannot justify a standard club membership, the De Vere Club has been considered a success after creating a more accessible, flexible and family friendly, golf and leisure membership.
“Golfers have responded positively to a more flexible, cost-effective golf membership and the addition of The Belfry will have a positive impact on the value of it.”
“I’d heard a lot about the De Vere Club before my appointment and I am 100 percent behind it,” added Ian Knox, The Belfry’s director of golf.
“It’s clearly struck a chord with the golfing public at all levels of the game and by offering golfers something different is encouraging new people to the sport, which can only be a good thing. I’m looking forward to seeing that development alongside our traditional membership moving forward at The Belfry.”
Of course, some golf club committees and treasurers fear flexible schemes, and many members dislike them. However, a survey last year found that the average annual membership subscription for 32 London clubs is £1,189 and the average standard weekend green fee is £41.82, meaning that members need to play at their club at least 28 times a year at weekends for it to be better value for money than being a visitor, and that excludes joining fee costs. For some clubs in the UK, members have to play more than 40 times per year – almost once a week – for it to be more cost effective than paying green fees.
With golf clubs in the UK and Ireland losing more than a quarter of a million members in the last six years alone, it is clear that the traditional model was never going to be sustainable. And the committees, treasurers and members may end up being very grateful to the flexible schemes if they prove to secure the futures of their clubs.