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Member & staff challenges amid a pandemic: Insights from VIC Managers

Tuesday 01, Sep 2020

Last month a Zoom webinar was conducted to give GMAQ members a chance to hear updates from a national and local perspective.

The webinar covered “The Victorian Golf Club Management Perspective” – Featuring two leading golf club managers in Melbourne: Philip Drew - Sandringham Golf Club and Mathew Loughnane – Kew Golf Club. The two managers discussed the challenges they’ve been facing in Victoria during the previous and current lockdown restrictions.

The conversation gave insight to what they have learned and what changes have been made to operations, to best assist looking after their members.

What is the biggest challenge or hurdle you have faced in the last five months?

Mathew said the biggest issue over the past five months has been managing member expectations. He said the swift and ever-changing restrictions and what they mean for the members have posed new challenges for the management.

“Things are moving so quickly and we only find out about new restrictions and what they mean when the members do, which only gives us two or three days to react to those restrictions and put them in place,” he said.

The Kew Golf Club is normally as busy club with approximately 1200 playing members (1500 in total). “During winter the club relies on a portion of those member going overseas or play elsewhere to free up some tee times. With travel and boarder restrictions in place, and with golf being one of the very few activities allowed to get you out of the house, there has been a lot of pressure on us as a club to accommodate that need and meet those expectations”, Mathew said.

“You would think that members would understand that these are different circumstance and unusual circumstance that we don’t face every year. But members are creatures of habit that want to play at their 8:30am time on a Saturday morning, which they have been doing for the past 30 years.”

“So, I’ve found…that a big challenge has been the reaction of members and trying to make them understand that this is different.”

Mathew also said his board made the decision after the first lockdown to refund members one month of subscriptions for this coming year. It was as a gesture saying the club understood times are tough for members as well. The boards haven’t made a decision this time around.

He also says there has not been a clear model on how to handle subscriptions and member expectations. Some clubs have been refunding members for a period, other have not been able to do so. “Some clubs are not in that position and wouldn’t make it through if they gave money back to members,” explained Mathew.

He also said the club’s membership forecast originally suspected 250 members to drop off compared to the usual 80. That number ha since been lowered to around 150. “We have seen that there is a big interest out there as golf is deemed a safe sport and we are not as worries or think we’ll be as impacted as we originally thought we might be.”

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Sandringham Golf Club is a public facility which is currently undergoing a $20-million-dollar refurbishment. Similar to Mathew, Phil said one of the greatest challenges over the past few months has been managing people’s expectations.

“In the beginning when Covid first took hold, we had to capture the data of all the people on site. Unlike a club we didn’t already have a list of people and now we had to create an online presence where people could book online. This gave us a perfect excuse to change the way people interacted with our facility, which is the biggest change we’ve had.”

In terms of struggles for the club, the financial bit has been the toughest says Phil. “We get revenue from green fees, not annual sub and we still have to pay rent, we still pay rates and all the other things. If Jobkeeper wasn’t here I would not be sitting here with a smile today. It has been a god sent to our business,”

“We’ve had a total of nearly three months of nearly no revenue at all – that hurts.”

What has the impact on the staff been and how are they travelling mentally?

“The staff has been great, although challenging. We paid all staff full rates for a month for the first lockdown, and after that we reduced full-timers back to three days a week,” says Mathew.

“Jobkeeper has allowed us to keep our casual staff as well and we’ve been trying to give consistent work in and around the club like painting, gardening and cleaning - a whole range of things to keep them engage and active.”

“Luckily everyone understood the circumstances during the second lockdown. This second time Jobkeeper has been a savior.”

With all staff now working from home, Mathew explains how they have implemented weekly catch-ups on Thursdays on Zoom to stay in contact.

“Some of our staff member are living alone, which can be a little bit tougher than if you have a family and we just catch up and make sure they are going ok.”

On the Sandbelt, Phil has recommended his staff to take the extra time at home to jump on various online courses to upskill, and he has explained what those skills would mean for the business going forward.

He says you also must be mindful of what your staff individuals require and provide them with some good partial care for them to “come out the other end.”

“We’ve been going through this for a long time and people are growing tired and are not always looking after themselves. We are just keeping an eye on everybody and make phone contact every other day or send texts.”

And yourselves, how are you coping?

“Jobkeeper has been a god sent in term of the financial impact on the club,” reiterates Mathew. “The financial stress is not there from my point of view which takes a lot of the burden off,”

“I was personally pretty comfortable with the second lockdown. Having supportive staff and more importantly, a supportive board that understands the reality of the situation of what we’ve dealing with, I think it’s really important.”

Phil said he’s lucky to have good support people in his life and to have the course being built as a distraction. “My days are half-full and some people’s days are empty,” he said.

How do you go about planning for the future when you don’t know what the future looks like?

“There is a renewed interest in golf,” said Phil. “People first choice of sport is not available, so golf is the default sport. Which is fantastic and couldn’t have come at a better time to be honest.”

He said the clubs’ tee sheets would be fully booked for days after the first lockdown.

“We’ve noticed that people are not talking about golf, they’re talking about getting some fresh air, getting some exercise and meeting up with some friends for a couple of hours…they are using our facility without talking about golf.

“The members are enjoying social golf more than competition golf and we’ve made a difference in the way we engage with our customers and the questions we ask them. We’re no longer talking about golf, but have they had a good time?

What are some important lessons learnt during this period?

“Communicating with the other managers,” says Mathew. “Not to try and come up with all the answers yourself. It’s good to get a different perspective. Talk to someone else otherwise it can feel too daunting.”

Phil concurred and said the bond between managers on the Sandbelt has always been strong. “Your greatest resource is your fellow managers.”

Mathew says some of the managers of Victorian clubs he has been speaking to are actually doing quite alright, due to help from Jobkeeper.

“Some of the clubs who were struggling financially, due to Jobkeeper they might be in a better position now than they were before. All in all, it hasn’t been too bad.”


GMAQ holds monthly webinars to give members a chance to hear updates from a national and local perspective.

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