Royal Norwich is reframing golf club membership as we know it. So, is it a one-off or will more soon follow suit? Steve Carroll reports
It’s as much about pizza as putts, micro-brewing as bombing drives, and working out as finding fairways. With its interior design by Kim Patridge, it looks more like a high-end restaurant than a traditional clubhouse, and it’s been hailed by many observers as the blueprint for golf club membership in the post-pandemic age.
In the shift from once archaic conflicts like sock lengths to family-friendly function rooms and a golf experience that extends far beyond the confines of the traditional 18-holes, Royal Norwich has been held up as a beacon – a measure of where private members’ clubs can go as they seek to provide the kind of facilities that were once the preserve of the sleek proprietary outfit.
The boom has provided the spark, handing the sport an all-at-once influx of diverse and younger participants.
When Royal Norwich first envisaged the shift from their historic Hellesdon home to the remnants of a 400-year-old woodland, no one could have imagined the upheaval coming from a worldwide viral disaster.
But as golf is taking the opportunity arising from coronavirus to adapt to a new audience and a more focused experience with the customer, chiefs feel the club is in the best possible place to capitalise on the feelgood factor around the game.
“We see huge opportunity,” said Royal Norwich chief executive James Stanley. “It’s to capitalise on that opportunity in the immediate [term] but also to develop the experience Royal Norwich provides to the golfer, the non-golfer, the restaurant guest, and beyond that as well.
“There are an awful lot of attractive aspects to our business that we really want to be able to tell people about, to really put Royal Norwich and [restaurant, clubhouse, meeting room and conference space] The Stables, onto the map as a destination.
“That’s more than just golf. It’s working with not just our membership but with all parties and people that we’ve touched outside of golf and how we’ve started to do that within the local community and beyond.”
Royal Norwich was hit hard during the lockdowns – “It couldn’t have come at a worse time”, explained Chairman David Coventry as he reflected on the hospitality shutdown that battered their business model – but even as Omicron threatened our earned-back freedoms, the team at Weston Park are convinced their hospitality offering, and focusing on families first, is the answer to ensuring any post-pandemic drop off in volume won’t find its way onto the club’s balance sheets.
Their varied memberships are part of the answer. Playing options at the club are as flexible as you like – something that has helped them amass a huge number of more than 1,300 golfers.
Those options, and the way players interacted with them, also revealed something else. They learned it was the points members – not those who had necessarily forked out the most for the full 7-day package – who tended to use hospitality more.
“That points membership, generally, is younger,” Coventry said. “While we’ve got a premium product here, we’ve always tried to price it at a level that makes it available to all.
“Our bottom end is £650 which, in Norfolk terms, is still quite reasonable. We’ve been able to attract a lot of younger players.
“I think we were probably at an average age of about 68, when we were at Hellesdon, which was pretty typical of most golf clubs.
“Our average at the moment is around 50.2 and, for women, it’s 49.1. So the whole age profile has come down massively.
“But you find within that profile, the older generation still play golf, they’ll come in and they’ll have their cup of tea and things like that. But the younger ones are the ones who will get the family down to join them, they’ll have lunch, or they’ll have supper, and they’ll make a day of it.”
“It’s got to remain relevant to the whole family and able to be used by the whole family,” added Stanley.
“There’s an awful lot of lost golf years to those that have families. In this generation, families come first and, with that in mind, and the desire to engage with them, if we have a facility that remains relevant to them they will participate.
“If you can bring your family and experience Royal Norwich, whether it be a game of golf, a wonderful dining experience, or anything else that we might bring on board to support the family, it’s going to support our overall business model.”
Flexible memberships have traditionally been eyed suspiciously by some private members’ clubs – maligned as a way of racing to the bottom on fees or encouraging members who might have continued in a 7-day option, even if it didn’t necessarily suit them, to take a cheaper option.
But Royal Norwich is essentially built on giving options – whether that’s on or off the course.
Stanley explained: “People are projecting that there’s going to be a drop and hopefully it’s not an economic boom and bust cycle. For us, having the ability to have varied membership options for people makes it relevant to them.
“A points-based membership will be hugely relevant, particularly as business becomes busier and those people who’ve made use of golf clubs – and the time that they’ve had to be able to go and play golf during the pandemic times hopefully can still do that.
“That’s going to be something we remain focused on. With the optics of where work and life and leisure is now going forward, with hybrid working practices, we really hope that we can capitalise on that.
“When people are perhaps working from home some days of the week, they can make use of the membership options we have rather than the old memberships which were quite expensive if you only played once a week at the weekend.
“We believe the offer we have here is very relevant to the way that lifestyles will continue to be after the pandemic and I think, because of that, we’re ideally placed not to have a [drop] in the demand for golf membership that’s been seen through the last 18 months.”
On the course, the fair use policy that became a feature of post-lockdown golf, as clubs tried to manage the huge numbers trying to book a tee time, was adapted at Royal Norwich and has stayed in place.
Members can have four tee bookings on the system in any 13-day period but can also book on the day if times are free. There has been no restrictions on the six-hole Academy course that has been far from simply a supplement at the club. For many members, it’s been their go-to golfing option.
So, alongside the focus on hospitality, there’s also an expectation at Royal Norwich that the days of purely exclusive use may be numbered.
Stanley said: “There’s an awful lot of golf clubs out there who have an ageing membership and finances that are challenging. They want to invest in their facilities, but without the real ability to do so. We have to have a healthy, progressive, business to allow for the future to happen.
“We have to look at these different ways of doing things. It’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a really good thing.
“There are some members that will say that it’s a terrible thing. But it’s only because they can’t play millionaire’s golf. This will only make it a better golf club, because they have more opportunity to engage with it over the time that they are a member.”
While the 10-mile move to the outskirts of Norwich took years to realise, things are now moving fast at Weston Park.
And pinning together the gym, the dining experience, the state-of-the-art practice facilities, the TrackMan bays, the conferences and corporate away days, is the vision of building a new kind of members’ club and a new model for the industry to follow.
“We’ve had this amazing move. We’ve got an amazing facility,” said Stanley. “The golf course is exceptional. But this is the starting point. We’re very much a new business.”
He continued: “There’s a big opportunity for us to put Norwich and Norfolk on the map – not just from a golf point of view but beyond that and actually creating the club of the future and one that is completely sustainable over the long term.
“That will attract every element of life – from the juniors that come here at six to those who want to play into their latter years.
“That’s how we will remain relevant and will continue to challenge the norm. We want to capitalise on those generations that are coming through – the Millennials and the Gen Zs – because they will be our future.
“It’s really exciting and there’s plenty to come.”