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Irons in the fire: golf clubs urged to innovate to survive

Declining memberships, dwindling revenues, courses ravaged by wretched weather?

The future would appear about as rosy as that of the high street but, in these testing times for Scotland's golf clubs, Hamish Grey, the chief executive of the Scottish Golf Union, is remaining upbeat.

"There is some fantastic work being done at clubs throughout the country," said Grey, referring to the innovation and fresh approach some establishments have adopted in an attempt to bolster and maintain memberships.

From the peak of 2006, when male and female adult membership reached 232,000, the figure has dropped by some 20,000. In 2012, the male figure declined by 1.76% and the female number by 2.02% . Despite this gradual, overall slide, some 34% of the SGU's affiliated clubs bucked the national trend over the past 12 months to record increases in membership numbers.

Since the boom times, the landscape has changed. People are still playing golf but how they play it has altered considerably. As well as changing social and economic factors, the simple fact that the weather has been fairly desperate over the last couple of summers has led to many simply questioning the value for money of, say, a £600 per year subscription.

There's not much the SGU can do about Mother Nature but, with money available from reserves of more than £1m, plans to help clubs weather the storm are already in place. A posse of club development officers have visited almost 300 clubs around the country over the last nine months offering advice and support on business planning, governance and management in an effort to help re-establish solid foundations for growth.

"If the market is coming to you then you don't need to change," added Grey. "It's different now, of course, and there's no doubt that clubs are struggling. We are sending out a clear message that we're here to help. Clubs have to want to do it but we're confident they will help themselves. They have to look at the new ways in which they can run their business, and that's no bad thing if you become more focused on the customer."

With a rise in the nomadic golfer and various cut-price, pay-and-play deals, Grey is urging clubs to embrace new technology and use it as a tool for expansion.

"We are trying to get as many clubs as possible to get tee-booking systems for members and visitors," he said. "In Sweden, for example, more than two thirds of tee times are booked online. It is a new cost for clubs and some may be reluctant but we might say 'can you afford not to do it?' There is a place for various pricing schemes but it needs to be done in a co-ordinated way. When do they discount? Look at airlines. During school holidays, there are not many discounts. Why then in the height of summer would you give huge discounts on a golf course? Clubs need to be a bit more sophisticated and savvy on what they offer and when. They have to understand what their business is."

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