Oxford were in “dire straits” when Stephen Nicholson first took on the general manager’s job. But, in little over a year, he’s turned the club around. He tells us how he did it…
Was a fire fighting operation on Stephen Nicholson’s mind when he stepped through the doors at Oxford for the first time?
The club, one of England’s oldest, had just posted another loss. That had continued a theme that had played out the same at the end of each of the last five financial years.
It was missing its identity, struggling for purpose, and meandering along in an ever-competitive market place.
Fast-forward 18 months and the future is looking much brighter. In the last calendar year, Oxford welcomed 80 new members and many of them broke the norm – occupying hard-to-reach groups such as 18 to 25s. Having arrived from a commercial background, Nicholson utilised his knowledge of business – and how to entice customers – to deliver almost instant success.
“One of the first things I did when I came in was to try and give the membership more value,” he explained.
“I contacted local businesses, hotels, restaurants, car dealerships – all sorts of businesses we could team up with that we could provide a service and they could provide a service to us.
“We have continued to develop those relationships and have had plenty of business on the back of it.
“One of the pieces of business we have started to do now are golf breaks and residential golf bookings.
“We don’t have accommodation, or a hotel, on site so we have teamed up with a hotel to give us preferential rates on various nights of the week and then we can buffer that up with a golf package from our side as an all-inclusive package.
“It takes a bit of time, or a bit of experience and tenacity. Sometimes it will take a few months before you get through the door or have a meeting and get on a wavelength with someone.”
Nicholson admits he hasn’t re-invented the wheel, using general marketing techniques and grasping the opportunities provided by social media networks, like Facebook, to get the message out there.
What he has done successfully is allocate the time and the effort to underpinning his initiatives and seeing them through.
He said: “I think that’s where golf club struggle. “They make up a bit of an advert in-house, which doesn’t look particularly nice, they don’t get the call to action right and they chuck it to a local newspaper for £300 or £400. “It doesn’t get a lot – or any – response and they think ‘well we did that once and it didn’t work’.
But you didn’t do it right.”
Nicholson brought families into the club by offering free junior membership, a gesture that was very well received and didn’t have the cost implications you might think, while he also concentrated on adding value to existing members to keep them at the club.
“The junior membership had decreased quite a lot in recent years,” he added.
“We needed to entice the members we already had to bring their children and grandchildren down.
“They could do that for free, and we don’t charge an awful lot for junior membership anyway, so we got quite a strong number of junior members within that category.
“Far more beneficially, we’d be bringing the juniors down and people would be bringing the families down.
“Mums and dads now are starting to play golf, starting to pick up the clubs off the back of their sons and daughters actually playing.
“We had a really good response from that.” The numbers back that up. From February 2017 through the next 12 months, membership increased from 430 to around 510.
That included juniors, full, intermediate members and a big influx of new joiners aged between 18 and 23.
“Members do warrant a better service – they demand it,” Nicholson added.
“I think clubs are still trying to get their heads around offering that better service, whether that’s having a conversation, a friendly greeting or whatever.
“Your main clientele in the golf club world is your membership and so you’ve got to look after them – probably more so than anything else.
“It’s about showing that we do value them and offering a really good product that looks like we value them rather than just cheap paper.”
Nicholson continued: “We’ve also looked at all the contracts, worked with the Golf Management Group and have been getting better deals. We’re more cost effective, it’s better service and we are saving money.
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