A day at Kingsbarns is more than just a round of golf – it’s designed to be an experience. Chief executive Alan Hogg reveals what sets the Fife club apart and why they’ve won ‘Best Customer Service’ prize for three years running at the Scottish Golf Tourism Awards
Kingsbarns is very interesting because you have no members. How does that work?
We don’t have any full stop. It’s a public golf course. The owners are American and they brought some of their ideas across. They looked at St Andrews – the pinnacle of which is the Old Course – and they saw the supply and demand, with more demand than supply. It was all about trying to enhance the St Andrews experience. It was giving those who couldn’t get onto the Old Course another place to play in St Andrews. It’s been about accessibility from day one and no restrictions. It’s not a private members’ club that might only allow 20 or 30 visitors. We say ‘let’s make everyone a member for the day’. Part of our concept and marketing is ‘let’s do something slightly different’.
That was a very risky call back in the day but, 17 years down the line, it’s proved successful. Our daily mantra is, purely and simply, what does the customer expect and can we meet and exceed this? If they come for a once-in-a-lifetime visit, you think of the excitement that some adults and children have going to Disneyland. Golfers who come to St Andrews have the same mentality. They are going to play the Old Course. They are going to Kingsbarns and it’s about what we can do to make that golfer feel welcome – from the meet and greet areas to the first tee giveaways. We were one of the first courses that started giving welcome packs with a pouch. So rather than having to pay £5 for your trolley or a course guide, it’s all included. We are able to charge enough for a green fee that we can do that. You get nothing for nothing but the customer is happy paying the green fee and there are no add ons. It isn’t ‘can I get a pencil? Can I get a course guide?’ You get a bag tag on the first tee. If we know your name in advance, we’ll print it and it’s credit card sized. It’s not an expensive giveaway.
But as soon as you put someone’s name on it they think ‘someone has thought about me’. You see lots of things that don’t necessarily have to cost a lot of money but you have to make the effort to get the golfer’s name in advance and pass that on to your staff.
You have to make sure they have arrived, and make sure the packs are in the Starter’s Hut at the correct time. It all makes you feel special before you hit the first shot. We get that coming back to us all the time – that journey of experience and that allows us
to be in a high end green fee position. In the shop, we don’t retail Callaway drivers, Vokey wedges or Scotty Cameron putters. We retail sweaters or a cap and it has to have a crown on it. People are looking for a memory or a memento.
Kingsbarns are renowned for being forward thinking in terms of customer service. Can you give us some examples of this?
When I started, we used to be fantastic at getting people off the first tee but we did have a post play concierge.
In my remit, to take us to the next level, I felt we were missing part of the circle. When you came off the course there was no one there to welcome you. Now, someone will ask you if you enjoyed your day, if you need taxi back. There is always someone there when you finish a round. When you go into the clubhouse and have a beer or a burger, our F&B team take it on from there. Are you looking for a table downtown? Can we reserve you a table? As well as using our restaurant, we would like people to go back to St Andrews and populate the restaurants there.
You are trying to complete the journey. We are continually looking at ways to say ‘we can do this better’ and what can we try.
Not being a members’ club, no one is criticising you for trying. If it doesn’t work, it gets shelved pretty quickly. We can try something new every day. If we get feedback that people enjoy that, let’s keep it in. At members’ clubs, you get criticism. They say ‘you haven’t got a clue because it’s something new every day’.
You shut the course for six months in the winter. Why do you make that decision?
We shut from the middle of September until the last week of March. It is basically on condition.
At the end of May, I could have shown you divots from last year’s Dunhill in October. There is no growth on the coastline until the middle of May and the start of June. With the volume of golfers we have through the season, if we continued that over the winter, we would ruin the course – or we would have to make compromises and ask golfers to play off mats.
If we do that, we can’t command our green fees and it would be discounted rates. We feel it would be a secondary experience.
You have to be in a strong financial position to make that statement but, when you come back at the end of March, it is the
best it can be.
Our maintenance team stay for 12 months of the year and they have had five months working away, making sure every possible thing is done so, for the first golfers coming through, it is ‘wow’. We see and hear from our colleagues and competitors in the market that they are looking at us with a little bit of envy.
Presumably, opening day is a big deal each year…
We are there to make a big fuss of everyone walking through the doors on the first day. We are opening the doors up and we have always done little tweaks affecting the clubhouse or the driving range. We don’t just sit back over those five months. We are continually investing in the property without changing the dynamic.
It’s a great atmosphere and it gives us a great opportunity to manage our staff. Our core staff work really hard during the summer, and they are working on annualised hour contracts and have the winter off. Everyone can have a certain amount of holiday in the summer, which is no problem with people working hard and an above average working week. They know, in the middle of November, we can down tools and pick them up in four months time. Only the core team, reservations and maintenance, are working 12 months.
How much has the course evolved since opening?
In the six years I have been here, from course condition, this place gets better through the years. We have 20,000 golfers playing in a six or seven month period and the turf has become stronger and tougher. We work very closely with the guys from the STRI and our course manager works really closely with that team. It’s very important to us and we have individual course maintenance programmes for each hole. The condition has improved immeasurably over six or seven years. Before I arrived, there was no development of any holes. In the last six years we have added a small shelf to the back side of our 9th green, a bunker on the 11th two or three years ago and two new tee boxes on the 3rd and 16th. In the main, the course has stayed the same for roughly 17 years.
What makes great customer service?
Customer service is everything. It’s three letters – yes. We strive for a satisfaction guarantee, which comes from our owner
Art Dunkley. We will do whatever it takes to satisfy each customer. When there’s a situation – maybe your coffee cup was cold or maybe pace of play might have been a little bit slow – we make sure that we have a policy that we do what it takes to make that customer happy. We have our Kingsbarns guarantee. We look at all the different departments – from our journey – and each head of department knows their place and their function within this customer service journey. We want to say we do everything to make the customer happy. Take when we serve a cappuccino. If you go into Starbucks, it is served with a little template. Ours is the Kingsbarns crown and, when you serve it, you make sure the crown is in the correct position. People look at that and go ‘wow’. Every cup of coffee we serve, the crown is there. We top it up. If you want a second coffee, it’s on the house. If you get a 1⁄2 pint of coke, your second is included. We try and make sure we touch as many golf bags as we can. We don’t want the customer picking his clubs up out of the boot of his car. When they get back into their car, we make sure we touch your clubs. In restaurants, this is called the golden touch – where they touch your chair before you sit down. We want people to have a great experience from the start, go through that journey and we keep re-evaluating that. There are no financial limitations – that says we are not allowed to do something.
It’s the opposite. We do what it takes to make that person feel involved. When I arrived, the rack green fee was £165. The rack rate is now £240. But because we operate to keep people happy, our rounds have grown by over 50 per cent. It shows you that it is still possible, in a fickle market place, if you provide a quality experience – which, of course, you are paying for.
We can say that’s our main driver for our rack rate green fee. We try and make sure everything has been included in that price. When you look at all our social media, and the feedback I get from customers post play, no one talks about the price. Everyone talks about what a great experience they had – from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave.
We have a special rate for our Scottish residents – we charge them 50 per cent of our rack rate. It’s still £120, which is a lot of money to charge the average Scottish person to play golf. We accept that Scottish golfers coming to play and paying £120 will be our most critical of clients. But it is the exact opposite. Scottish golfers have voted Kingsbarns for the last three years as the best overall experience
in Scotland. That’s from critical Scottish golfers, so we must be doing something right.
One of the things some customers say holds the sport back are stringent rules and regulations – like on dress codes, for example. Where do you stand on this?
We have no dress codes, on or off the course. You can come and play. We draw the line at bathing suits. People look at each other and
you know how golf fashion has evolved over the last few years. Nike now have their collarless shirts and Tiger had the turtle necks.
We have had no one playing in vests, and no one in hot pants. That’s without having a dress code.
There are no signs that say no jeans, no training shoes. At the end of the day, maybe a handful have walked on in a pair of jeans. If that’s
how they feel comfortable we are fine with that.
If someone wants to wear their cap in the clubhouse, let them wear their cap. We want what the customers want. If they come in
wearing flip-flops, if that’s what they put on after a shower, great. If you walk into the clubhouse, it’s a nice, relaxed environment. We
have got free wifi – there are no pass codes.
If you want to speak to your wife on the phone – and the mobile is down – we will give you a landline. If their phone isn’t charged up, we
give them a charger. We try to get into the mindset of how to make them feel special. They then walk away and say ‘Kingsbarns was
fantastic’. And no one talks about paying £240 to play the course.