In discussion: Are flexible memberships the way forward?

Golf Equipment

Would new membership packages help attract golfers to our clubs? Or do clubs need to take a holistic attitude towards what they offer? Two of our team debate this key issue. Get involved by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page, the best ones could feature in the next issue of our next magazine...

James Tompkinson (JT): A recent survey published by England Golf showed that just 13% of golf clubs in England offer flexible membership packages, but also that 52% of clubs reported that their membership numbers had dropped since 2010. Do you not think it would be beneficial for more clubs to adopt flexible membership options?

Jamie Miles (JM): No, I think that clubs need to be more concerned about improving the product they offer to both members and visitors, including the golf course, catering, social events and their golf professional. I think they need to do more to add value rather than finding a price or membership category that is deemed good value for what they already offer.

JT: I agree completely that there are clubs who could benefit greatly from making improvements in all the areas that you mentioned, but I do believe that there needs to be a fundamental change in the types of membership packages on offer. One of the biggest problems that many people have is finding enough time to play enough golf so as to justify paying a hefty seven-day membership fee. How do we appeal to those golfers if there are no flexible membership schemes?

JM: Pay-and-play is the answer. I think a good analogy is the way in which people pay for mobile phones. Pay-as-you-go phone schemes where you only pay for the calls and messages that you use cost you more in the short term per call and text, but you are not tied down. By making the commitment to a phone contract you can potentially get more for your money, but only if you use it enough. A phone contract it also opens up the possibility of getting a much more expensive handset, which is no different to being a member of what you believe to be a nice golf club.

JT: True, but in practice would that work as well for the clubs involved? I don’t think it would. Say for argument’s sake that I can pay £300 per year for 20 rounds of golf at a given club, with the option to buy more rounds by topping up my allocation. That works out at £12 per round, which is great value for me, but crucially the club gets £300 up front at the start of the year, which surely is much better from their point of view as well when it comes to things like planning budgets? It’s a win for both parties.
Clubs do need to attract more members and I think the 21st century golfer is the perfect target for flexible membership packages.
JM: But what then happens if most of the current members take up this option? If your hypothetical club once had 500 members paying £1000 and then 400 of them move to your flexible scheme, the club would be £280,000 down at the start of the year!

JT: True, which is why you have to be careful. Firstly, there are many members who will play much more often than once every two weeks and therefore will want to take advantage of a seven-day membership offer. Any club setting a flexible membership price would have to work a rate out in line with their existing membership fees and their green fees. Clearly £300 for 20 rounds does not offset well against an annual fee of £1000 with a club that has 500 members, but the principle is still there. Also on your earlier point, do you really think that clubs will get more members in by just improving their facilities?

JM: Membership retention should be the number one priority, followed by attracting new members. If you do the first part right then you will have less of a job sorting out the next part. If you provide golfers with a well-conditioned course, great family-friendly catering facilities and a proactive golf professional then I think you can generate more members.

JT: I agree that membership retention is fundamentally important for clubs, but we know that over half of all clubs in England are losing members, and I really think that there is something more than course and club conditions behind that figure. Clubs do need to attract more members and I think the 21st century golfer is the perfect target for flexible membership packages. There are many excellent examples of clubs who have done it well to target specific types of people.

JM: I’m not saying a flexible membership package won’t bring more members into clubs, but I just think it is a short-term fix that has a very negative effect on the future of golf clubs. I don’t think a desperate attempt to get as much of a financial commitment as possible from those who don’t have the finances or time to justify a full membership is the right way to go. At the moment, the fact is there are too many golf clubs. In a few years the demand will be there again once our ageing population has more time on their hands or added financial clout. Until then, clubs have to roll up their sleeves and compete by making sure their product is constantly improving so members don’t want to leave and other golfers are looking at what the club offers rather than just how much it costs to be a member there.

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