Meet the General Manager of the Golf Club: James Thomas

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Oakdale Golf Club manager in Yorkshire talks about handling a significant increase in membership over the past two years, dealing with staff self-isolation and why his club manages an innovative membership program.

Jacques Thomas

Can you tell us a bit about Oakdale Golf Club?

The Oakdale Golf Club enjoys an enviable position close to the center of Harrogate, next to the wealthy ‘Duchy Estate’. Set amidst a tranquil and picturesque environment, this is the only 18 hole golf course located within the city limits, but it is famous for its rural atmosphere and peaceful position. It was designed by world renowned golf course architect Dr Alister MacKenzie in 1914; the course has two nine hole loops with a par 71. We have a team of 50 people whose dedication to the club is second to none.

Oakdale clubhouse and putting green

What have been your experiences and those of the club since the start of the pandemic and until today?

We have resisted Covid very well as a company. We minimized our staffing structure during the pandemic and took advantage of the government’s leave plan. We received support from our bankers and our local authority, who both eased the pressure and allowed us to navigate our way through Covid smoothly.

From a personal perspective, our second daughter was born in the middle of the pandemic. We have reduced our social commitments to a minimum; Also, we were undergoing major renovations to our property so we have certainly been on our toes throughout!

Oakdale has a unique membership structure; can you tell us more?

Over the years, we have introduced different categories of members in order to support our recruitment. The result of this approach was that Oakdale had a plethora of different membership options that were inconsistent with our pricing strategy and corporate values. We made the decision to reduce our membership categories from 28 to five, essentially offering only “full” membership plus the usual social, national, honorary and junior categories.

We have seen a steady decline in the number of full members over the past 10 years, as the cost has gone up north, the total number of full members has gone south. In order to bring this line closer we have reduced the full membership from £ 1,200 to £ 700 plus £ 5 per round. With the help of a firm of digital marketing strategists, members received a fantastic response from the market, pushing close to 30 new members four weeks after launch. This innovative and different approach to golf club membership allows each member to pay proportionately for its use and creates more of a “club” feeling around Oakdale because everyone is on an equal footing.

Oakdale 7th hole

What do you think are the biggest challenges in running Oakdale today?

Capacity management. Our innovative membership structure has attracted over 200 new full members over the past two years. Access to the tee is about to become a real problem. We had to overcome this problem by reducing the time between flights, encouraging tee-sharing and placing restrictions on the number of visitors. Two years ago, golf was a declining market, competing not only with other sports but also other hobbies such as computer games. The world is a different place now and golf has undoubtedly benefited from government blockades and those on leave. Our challenge now is to keep these members engaged with the club in perpetuity, using all necessary retention tools.

In addition to capacity management, staff who are asked to self-isolate either through the NHS app or directly through NHS Track and Trace has proven to be extremely problematic for us. We have scheduled events with over 200 attendees, with 24 hours notice, over 50% of our staff could not work. Crisis management was crucial and we had to react effectively.

You’ve been in the golf industry for over a decade now, how do you think that – and the role of the golf club manager – has changed during this time?

Looking back a decade, the role of golf club manager was much simpler. Before the pandemic, the model of a golf club had become different as other sources of income had to be explored and exploited to compensate for declining members’ income. Oakdale achieved this goal by integrating the catering operation in-house and achieving a turnover of almost £ 500,000 per year.

You’ve gone from professional golf assistant to club manager. How did it happen?

I never considered working in the professional side of golf. My skills have always been in business management and leadership. I love managing people and budgets, so managing golf clubs was a natural progression. My previous management experience at Rudding Park helped me make the transition in 2015/16.

When my predecessor left, I saw an opportunity to give Oakdale a strong direction for the future. I presented a proposal to the board of directors which set out a four-phase 10-year plan, listing each step of the way. Two interviews later, I was offered the job of managing director.

What skills transferable to golf club management do you think a PGA Professional typically has?

A PGA Professional at the end of his professional golf course should be strategic in everything he tackles, from delivering a golf lesson to buying stocks for the coming year. Taking this approach with the management of golf clubs is essential. As the role is so large and incorporates a variety of challenges, each task should be well thought out, evaluated and then executed according to the business plan.

You studied professional golf at the University of Birmingham. What did the course involve and how did it help you?

The course was spread over three years and covered four areas: business management, golf training, sports science, and custom fit and repair. After studying each module in depth and passing numerous exams in each area, it helped me identify the direction in which I wanted to steer my career. Being a PGA Professional allows me to approach golf across both ends of the spectrum (amateur and professional). I understand exactly what a PGA Professional needs to do to be successful and what a golf club requires from a PGA Professional in order to stay relevant in the market and be attractive to new members.

Your clubhouse is big and impressive! Do you have many functions and have you invested in the catering offer in recent years? And can you tell us about the tribute acts that the club sometimes offers?

In February 2017 we invested £ 250,000 in modernizing the clubhouse and its facilities. The aim was to increase the use of the clubhouse and in turn increase food and beverage sales. Before Covid, many functions took place throughout the year, ranging from “Tina Turner” to the Gambia vs India curry night! As we all know, investments take time to settle and grow and a long-term view resulted in our food and beverage revenue growth of 43% for 2019.

Oakdale Professional Shop

How does Oakdale fit in with its local community?

We try to be a good corporate citizen and a member of the local community. We organize various events throughout the year where members can invite their friends and guests. We are keen on having good green credentials and ensure this is taken into account when exploring any business case.

How do you communicate with existing members?

Finding the balance between giving members enough information or too much information is a fine line. We communicate through various media platforms, email, website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Each mode of communication targets a different sector of the market. It is important to maintain a constant channel of communication in order to keep members up to date with developments within the club and to inform visitors / members of the public about what Oakdale has to offer. Our golf club is constantly evolving and a clear and concise communication strategy is essential to its success.

What is the club’s approach to customer service?

It is of the utmost importance to us. We strive for and provide first class customer service. To do this, we establish procedures to be followed for each department, which translates into a consistently positive experience for our members and guests. We follow the mantra “every visit to Oakdale makes you want to come back”.

How do you stay up to date with the latest golf industry news?

I have read almost every publication on golf; I am a member of three golf associations (PGA, GCMA and Golf Club Secretary). I love to research different trends in golf and think about how they could be applied in Oakdale to improve the experience for our members and their guests.

Yorkshire has a number of leading golf clubs. Have you ever found yourself competing with other Yorkshire golf club managers?

We are still in competition with other clubs. The market is tough and there is so much competition in the Harrogate area; however, swimming upstream certainly helped us get a head start. Our revolutionary membership structure has made golf in Oakdale more accessible than at other clubs. We are a very inclusive club with a unique membership offer, our social scene is vibrant and these elements have allowed us to increase our number of full members to over 200 over the past two years.

What are your forecasts for the golf industry over the next few years?

It depends partly on the governing bodies that influence the golf industry and partly on the golf clubs themselves. The PGA must work to produce better quality professionals who can specialize in certain areas. This would help golf clubs recruit the right person for their business plan and help retain and recruit members. BIGGA should orient recruitment towards an apprenticeship program. As a company, we have had a lot of trouble recruiting green staff despite remunerations above market rates. I am sure we are not alone.

If access to apprentice greenkeepers improved, the golf industry would be able to give members (customers) what they want – it will encourage them to stay and we should have healthier clubs financially. England Golf and The R&A need to think about what the industry will look like in 10 to 15 years. I don’t know all the answers, but I can envision shorter games, fewer holes, a more relaxed dress code, and improved technology. The rules must anticipate and reflect these changes.

Ultimately, the golf industry now has the opportunity offered by Covid to build for the future. Every club should strive to give its members what they want, creating a welcoming and inclusive environment, and then everything else should fall into place.


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